On the “love” side, I’ve seen many different organizations that I respect greatly — organizations with truly outstanding cultures — which not only have core values, but firmly believe they anchor an outstanding culture. They reference them frequently, at all levels inside the organization. They live them.
On the “hate” side, however, I have also seen core values that are an utter waste of time. They are a boiled-down list of values everyone agrees with on the surface, but they don’t really impact behavior inside the organization. Enron, after all, had a lovely set of core values hanging on the wall in their lobby, but that’s not what they really valued.
So I am neither for nor against core values, but if you have them or want to develop them, I urge you to make sure they do these two things (drawn from my earlier post about the definition of culture):
- Make it crystal clear what is valued.
- Connect what is valued to what drives success.
I worked with an association that had recently developed a list of core values, including some popular ones like “collaboration” and “empowerment.” We asked how the organization’s core values showed up in the work they were doing. At first, the conversation stayed on the surface, as if they were being tested and and they needed to somehow prove things like collaboration and empowerment were part of their work.
But as we dug deeper, they started to see where the values actually mattered. Like the fact that on one particular team, they let people make their own decisions, rather than requiring everything to be approved ahead of time. That was clearly linked to the impressive results the team produced at the time. They then understood what “empowerment” meant in a much more concrete way, and they understood how it made them more successful. That’s how you get core values to become truly embedded in your workplace.